Monday, June 04, 2007

Opening Soon: 12:08 East of Bucharest

In general, Warsaw Pact countries with a history of dissent, like Poland and then Czechoslovakia, fared much better after the fall of Communism then those countries where Marxist domination went virtually unchallenged. Romania under Ceausescu would be a case in point, in Corneliu Porumboiu’s new film, 12:08 East of Bucharest.

The title refers to the moment at which Ceausescu evacuated Bucharest on December 22, 1989. It is the pivotal time for determining whether the characters of Porumboiu’s city of Vaslui actually revolted during the regime, or merely celebrated his demise after the fact.

The bulk of 12:08 takes place on the set of a live call-in show in Vaslui, as two flawed characters, one an alcoholic school teacher, the other a part-time Santa Claus, recount their revolutionary memories. However, their claims are soon disputed by various townspeople, including a former secret police bureaucrat turned crony capitalist, in what could be described as a provincial Frost Nixon.

Indeed, we see a Romania that lacks the verve of the Czech Republic and the economic drive of Poland. It seems to be a perennially dark country, even though street lamps play an important metaphorical role in the film. There is wide spread cynicism for Vaslui’s revolutionary claims, but Porumboiu fittingly gives the last call to a mother whose son was killed in Otopeni, Bucharest on the 23rd, fighting to bring down the feared Ceausescu dictatorship, who nicely puts things into perspective.

Porumboiu has written a script that asks some interesting questions and his direction captures the claustrophobia and tackiness of that provincial studio (where we also get to hear a traditional Romanian band try their hand at a Latin dance number). It lacks the suspense and emotional heft of a film like The Lives of Others, but it certainly captures the feeling of a country still finding its way after monumental changes. It is fitting that one of its main characters often plays the role of Santa Claus, who as P.J. O’Rourke wrote, gives us everything we want, but does not really exist. It opens at the Film Forum in the City on June 6th (with free DVD giveaways of one of Porumboiu’s shorts at the 6:15 & 8:00 shows).